Amos 3-5

Have you been on trips through areas where every few miles there is a place marked “scenic view” or “historical landmark”? You want to stop but you don’t and always say, “The next time I make this drive I am going to allow some margin for pulling off and seeing what is there.” But we don’t. That is how I feel about these passages. I would love to stop along the way but there is too much to cover. Maybe the next time we do Amos we can take another route. This morning we are driving from Amos 3 all the way to Amos 5 so we need to get started.

Amos 3:2 “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins.”

That’s what we read in Hebrews as well, isn’t it?

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Hebrews 12:5

But punishment and discipline only work with those who respond to it. There are people who seem to thrive on punishment or are determined to not give in no matter what. I’ve known children who just smile when they are punished. It’s unsettling, isn’t it?

But there is something different about these people. Over time, they have become incapable of doing right.

“Amos 3:10. “They do not know how to do right,” declares the Lord, “who hoard plunder and loot in their fortresses.”

Paul writes to Timothy about those whose consciences are seared and then in Romans he writes about those who have exchanged the truth of God for a lie. In Isaiah we read about those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.

The people Amos is warning about punishment have lost all fear of punishment. They are like those David writes in Psalm 94. “They slay the widow and the alien; they murder the fatherless. They say, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob pays no heed. Take heed, you senseless one among the people.”

That is exactly what these people have become over time. They are senseless and numb. They have lost all feeling and sense of guilt. There is nothing in them that prompts them to do right. The Lord through Isaiah says, “Therefore my people will go into exile for lack of understanding.” This is worse.

I spent a little time this week reading about people like this who have no feeling or guilt. The term is “psychopath.”

There are differences between psychopaths and sociopaths. Psychopaths tend to be more manipulative and charming. Sociopaths tend to be more erratic, rage-prone, and unable to lead a normal life. But both are similar in their inability to experience guilt or the feelings of other people.

Why do I bring this up? When God says he will punish the people out of his love for them they no longer have any understanding of what that means.

Studies of psychopaths have shown that they fail to learn from punishment. In fact they process rewards and punishments differently from most people. “Psychopaths are more likely to believe that no matter the option they choose, the rewards will come. When interviewed, criminal psychopaths sometimes sound indignant about their incarceration. They are surprised to be caught and think the punishment is undeserved.”

And the longer they have to think about the punishment the worse their decisions become over time. “Most of us are able to adjust our behavior pretty quickly when an action that had previously been rewarding suddenly becomes punishing. Psychopaths, however, persist at a given behavior even though it has become punishing.”

Amos 4:6-11. Look at the list of warnings God has sent already: empty stomachs, drought, blight, locusts, plagues, and insurrections. None of these woke them up from their beliefs that everything was going to be fine.

In other words, punishment does not work on them. It’s not just individuals though. Small groups of people, like gangs, or even larger groups of people can display psychopathic behavior where it is like the wiring of their brains has been affected and they truly have lost the ability to do right. They are truly senseless and empty of all feeling. That is what Amos is saying here. He is not addressing one individual alone but a whole group of people who have become psychopathic. It is a sick culture.

What has made them this way? What has made them senseless and dumb to feeling?

Amos 4:1. “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy…The time will surely come when you will be taken away with hooks, the last of you with fishhooks. Burned leavened bread as a thank offering and brag about your freewill offerings – boast about them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do.”

We normally think of women as being those who preserve whatever there is of compassion and mercy in a society but even the women have become senseless and oppressed the poor and crushed the needy. They brag about their generosity that has come at the expense of the poor.

Amos 5:11-13. “You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts. Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil.”

Amos 5:21-24. “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.

You may have been following the account of former quarterback Brett Favre in Mississippi. In a secret deal with the former Governor they diverted Temporary Relief for Needy Family funds earmarked for the poor because Favre had a daughter playing volleyball for the University of Southern Mississippi.

“The texts show that the then-governor even guided Favre on how to write a funding proposal so that it could be accepted by the Mississippi Department of Human Services – even after Bryant ousted the former welfare agency director John Davis for suspected fraud.

“Just left Brett Favre,” Bryant texted nonprofit founder Nancy New in July of 2019, within weeks of Davis’ departure. “Can we help him with his project. We should meet soon to see how I can make sure we keep your projects on course.”

When Favre asked Bryant how the new agency director might affect their plans to fund the volleyball stadium, Bryant assured him, “I will handle that… long story but had to make a change. But I will call Nancy and see what it will take,” according to the filing and a text Favre forwarded to New.

The newly released texts, filed Monday by an attorney representing Nancy New’s nonprofit, show that Bryant, Favre, New, Davis and others worked together to channel at least $5 million of the state’s welfare funds to build a new volleyball stadium at University of Southern Mississippi and where Favre received most of the credit for raising funds to construct the facility.”

What was Favre’s biggest concern? That the deal would be leaked to the media and everyone would know about the diversion of funds and what he was paid.

They oppress the poor and crush the needy.

Maybe you have kept up with the practice of a number of non-profit hospitals who bring suits against the poor who cannot pay their already inflated bills and cannot hire attorneys to argue their case. One hospital in particular has been singled out: Methodist Le Bonheur in Memphis “From 2014 through 2018, Methodist filed more than 8,300 lawsuits and through its in-house collection agency pursues them – even their own employees. While state law spares the poorest debtors from wage garnishment, it doesn’t stop creditors from adding interest to the underlying debt. Methodist added interest to one account seven times, in amounts ranging from $46 to $7,340.

They oppress the poor and crush the needy.

Matt Desmond, once evicted from his home as a child, wrote the book “Eviction” about the growing number of women who are the main victims of eviction in this country.

In any given year, approximately 16,000 adults and children are evicted in Milwaukee from approximately 6,000 housing units—that’s 16 households evicted each day. To place these figures in perspective, consider that the number of families evicted in Milwaukee in an average year is equivalent to the number of families forced out of public housing in Chicago, a city with approximately five times the popula- tion, over the course of a decade.

Those evicted are disproportionately women from black and Hispanic neighborhoods, the study finds. Why are women so much more likely to be evicted? Low wages is one reason. Although women in high-poverty black neighborhoods are more likely to work than men, their wages are often lower than the wages of working men from these neighborhoods. Children can also pose a challenge to single mothers beyond the cost of larger rental units to accommodate them.Children can result in landlords coming under increased state scrutiny. Children might test positive for lead poisoning, for example, and the Environmental Protection Agency will step in. Child protective services may be alerted if the home is unsafe or unsanitary.

Families have watched their incomes stagnate, or even fall, while their housing costs have soared. Today, the majority of poor renting families in America spend over half of their income on housing, and at least one in four dedicates over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on. Millions of Americans are evicted every year because they can’t make rent.

But the profits are too good to pass up. In 1966, a Chicago landlord told a court that on a single property he had made $42,500 in rent but paid only $2,400 in maintenance. When accused of making excessive profits, the landlord simply replied, “That’s why I bought the building.”

90 percent of landlords are represented by attorneys, and 90 percent of tenants are not. Low-income families on the edge of eviction have no right to counsel. But when tenants have lawyers, their chances of keeping their homes increase dramatically.

They oppress the poor and crush the needy.

In the passage on the widow’s mite It is not coincidental that the encounter comes directly after Jesus has warned the disciples about the teachers of the law: “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
She is not a chance widow in the Temple. Instead, she is one of those to whom Jesus referred in these verses. She has been made poor by the religious leaders as they have devoured her house and reduced her to nothing. Not just a destitute widow in desperate straits but one of many put into poverty by the men she esteemed. She is one who has suffered from the abuse of trust.

Perhaps you read about Pastor Victor Gonzalez and his family in California who have been indicted for defrauding the poor

Gonzalez was one of 12 Imperial Valley Ministries officials charged by the federal administration for illegally using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits of over 30 individuals residing at IVM rehabilitation group homes in El Centro and Calexico.

Court records estimate the value of the food stamp benefits acquired by Gonzalez and his co-conspirators to be about $103,000. Court records also stated Gonzalez lived in a home for free, collected a weekly salary, and received an occasional “blessing” of $1,000.

Initially, IVM members persuaded participants to join them to receive shelter and free food with the assurance they would receive help and resources to get back on their feet. IVM’s public mission was to restore drug addicts at faith-based rehabilitation homes and raise money to build similar programs in other cities. However, many victims claimed IVM held them against their will. They stated that church leaders locked them inside group homes with deadbolt locks, nailed some property windows shut, and confiscated driver’s licenses, passports, immigration papers, and identification cards to prevent participants from escaping. Furthermore, IVM obtained and used their Electronic Benefits Transaction cards acquired through SNAP and required participants to panhandle up to 54 hours a week on IVM’s behalf.

IVM operated a non-denominational church in El Centro and had opened about 30 affiliate churches throughout the United States and Mexico. In addition, IVM recruited many participants from outside El Centro, San Diego, and as far east as Texas.

They oppress the poor and crush the needy

According to the Pew Safe Small-Dollar Loans Research Project, 12 million American adults used a payday loan in 2010, and 5.5% of American adults used payday loans in the prior five years. These borrowers tend to be low-income, young, and female. In addition, although most payday borrowers are white, people of color are more likely to receive payday loans, and payday lending storefronts are more likely to locate in neighborhoods of color. Historically, storefront payday lenders have targeted members of the military, setting up shop right outside military bases, but this has changed since passage of the Military Lending Act in 2006. The payday lending industry includes both bank and non-bank lenders. Non-bank lenders offer payday loans via two primary channels: through storefronts (with typical APRs of over 400%) and over the internet (with typical APRs often exceeding 600%).

But it is not the initial loan that gets people in trouble. It is called loan churn or late fees incurred by loans needed to repay previous loans. No matter how these loans are offered, they are structured to create a long-term cycle of debt for borrowers.” The whole object of payday loans is getting borrowers trapped on a debt treadmill.

“People with legitimate short-term needs who pay off their loan within two weeks aren’t that attractive to payday lenders. Instead, payday lenders make most of their profits from borrowers who cannot pay off their loans, and instead renew them repeatedly, quickly paying more in fees than they originally borrowed. Borrowers who get five or more loans account for 91% of payday lender revenues.” (The Center for Responsible Lending)

They oppress the poor and crush the needy.

The list is long and includes the bail bond industry, higher prices for basics like food, housing, transportation, a criminal justice system that favors the rich – all of which depend on the poor having few or no options. This is not about those who insist on being poor by their own choices but those who are poor in a system that feeds off their poverty. Some call it the poverty industry.

Daniel Hatcher’s book, “The Poverty Industry” outlines how some states have responded to budget cuts. “Facing budget crises but reluctant to raise taxes, many state politicians treat federal dollars available for poverty-relief programs as an easy mark from which they can mine revenue without political consequence. They divert federal funding earmarked for social programs for children and the elderly, repurposing it for their general funds with the help of private companies that in effect launder money for them. This is possible because there is a near-total absence of accountability for how states use federal money intended to fight poverty. Remarkably, states do not even have to pretend to have used all the funds for the stated purpose;”

They oppress the poor and trample the needy

So, what are we to do? We cannot boil the ocean or fix every problem caused by a fallen and broken creation. I think Scripture would agree and here is what it says for each of us

“Seek me and live.. Seek the Lord and live.” Amos 5:4,6

“Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. Hate evil, love good. Maintain justice in the courts.” Amos 5:14

“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never ending stream.” Amos 5:24

There are no silver bullets or sure things in Scripture but there are admonitions and guides for how each of us are to live. We are to live seeking what is true and not be caught up as were those in Israel who “drew sin along with cords of deceit and wickedness as with ropes” and called evil good and good evil. We are to be people who have not lost their senses or have their understanding darkened and, worse, have lost the ability to do right. We are to be people who are not clever or devious but those who live in the open. We are light. We are salt. We are, individually and as a body of believers, the hope of the world.

This is the word of the Lord.

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